A few weeks ago, I wrote a Friday Forward called Exposure Therapy. The post focused on the growing tendency to conflate emotional discomfort with physical danger in society today, and how this creates more physical and emotional intolerance.
I began with an anecdote about how the popular policy of banning all nut products from classrooms, while a well-meaning effort to protect children with allergies, was likely leading to more nut allergies, according to a popular study. That story was shared as an analogy about emotional intolerance, not a policy recommendation.
Exposure Therapy was easily the most popular Friday Forward of the year so far and I received many replies. While almost all of the responses were unrelated to allergies, one of my favorite replies came from a parent of a child with a nut allergy. Her response to the topic captured the essence of so many important themes of Friday Forward and the capacity building framework I regularly espouse. Here’s what she wrote:
My son has a life-threatening peanut allergy (and severe tree nut allergies) despite my efforts to expose him early.
We specifically chose a school from age 2 that was not nut free because we live in a world full of nuts and our son needed to learn to advocate for his own safety, even as a small kid. We told him that allergies are like a cliff you have to learn to walk along without falling off.
By the time he was 4, my son knew not to trust adults who said food was safe without checking. By the time he was 8, he could eat in public – carefully, because he has great communication skills. At 10, he traveled internationally, with cards that explained his allergies in multiple languages. (He carried epi pens, steroids, and albuterol just in case.)
Now we’re looking at colleges and a guide at one small liberal arts college we visited went out of their way to tell us about their nut-free student dorm and a nut-free cafe on campus. We must have all rolled our eyes in unison because the poor tour guide said “Oh, sorry, I thought you had a nut allergy.” My son said, “I do, but I don’t need to live in a bubble.” I knew then that he’d be fine wherever he goes to college and in life.
We had seen other kids whose fear of nuts had generalized into fear of life, and we decided to empower our son, instead. And it worked for our child. He’s also always had great friends who have literally thrown themselves in front of peanuts for him, without being asked.
Thanks for your thought-provoking post!
Here’s what I loved about Susan’s response.
The problem with overly accommodative parenting or leadership strategies is accommodation can’t change reality. For kids, it sucks to have an allergy. It also sucks to be teased, to be the shortest in the class, to have acne, or to be picked last for sports. Life is often unfair, and we can’t protect kids from that fact forever.
Susan had every reason to want to shield her son from the dangers of living with a peanut allergy. Instead, she accepted reality and chose to teach him what he could control, what he could not, and how to increase safety by focusing on the former. She realized keeping a bubble around her son might have long-term consequences or inconveniences that would harm his development.
Some might view Susan’s approach as riskier, but it’s clear that her son is well equipped to navigate the world with his allergy. As she noted, it’s often very hard for people to escape a protective bubble when they live in it for too long, even after it’s no longer needed.
Susan’s reference to her son’s friends’ awareness and protectiveness demonstrates another positive of avoiding overly accommodative bubbles: it necessitates teaching awareness, compassion and empathy. For example, a child without allergies who grows up in a nut-free environment might not learn to advocate for their friends who have allergies, or to ask if something has nuts before it is served to a friend with an allergy outside of school. Risk-free environments don’t always help people learn to look out for each other.
We are naturally predisposed to protect ourselves and those we care about from physical or emotional harm. But it’s important that we factor in the short- and long-term effects of that protection—we gain temporary peace of mind but sacrifice resilience and problem-solving skills in the process. Accepting reality and choosing to focus on what we control are powerful tools for life and important lessons to teach, especially at a young age.
Quote of The Week
“Don’t be fearful of risks. Understand them, and manage and minimize them to an acceptable level.”